For a minute there, it looked as if horror was lost on 2014. When your biggest offerings in the genre are Ouija and Annabelle, it might as well be a sign to pack it in.
Enter The Babadook.
Coming from Australian director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is this year’s diamond in the rough that stands apart. The film is not only a marvel of showcasing creeping terror, it’s grounded in a highly resonant story that spotlights one of life’s most destructive monsters of all: depression.
Seven years after the accident that took her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to raise her rambunctious son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), whose behavior becomes increasingly aggressive. One night Amelia unwittingly reads to Samuel from a bedtime storybook he brandishes called “Mister Babadook.” After discovering the book’s frightening content, Amelia is unsuccessful at keeping thoughts of the frightening titular monster from Samuel’s mind as he obsesses over it. Maybe it’s for good reason. Shortly after, Amelia finds herself slowly but surely stalked by unexplained visions and influences that make her a danger to her son.
In a landscape of “jump scare a minute” horror features, it’s beyond refreshing to see a film that finds power in building up sheer atmospheric terror. Pitch black corners and tricks of the light take precident over things popping out at the screen. Kent skillfully builds tension in several scenes through editing trickery and sound choices so chilling they cause immediate goosebumps. Reality bends to levels of uncertainty that are wild and upsetting.
While the terror of The Babadook is almost overwhelming sometimes, it’s the restraint the filmmakers show in handling the titular creature that keeps the fear ballooning. The Babadook itself is almost never seen in a complete way, often covered in shadow with only the briefest glimpse of the monster’s disturbing face. Truthfully, it’s more terrifying to know that the creature is present than actually seeing every detail of it.
What makes The Babadook so special, however, is that the overt horror aspects are secondary to the real human emotion that guides the story. Even more than lanky monsters that hide in the dark, this film shows these supernatural events as subsidiary to the tragic lifestyle Amelia finds herself in, day and day out. So often throughout we feel her hopeless frustration in raising an unruly child alone and it’s unnerving when we feel that she may not love her child… and what that may mean in the end. This being is literally feeding off her grief and depression, becoming a force that so clearly can lead to child abuse in many situations. Can you say “metaphor”?
Even when familiar trappings spring up, such as the mother becoming possessed by the evil spirit, the overall thoughtfulness of the film makes it a cut above the rest. This is the litter chiller that could. It’s harrowing in its drama and deeply unsettling in its tone, leaving an eerie feeling that, like the book says about the Babadook, you just can’t get rid of.